How are academies, academy chains, and the “self-improving school system” developing in England? A podcast with Toby Greany

Toby Greany

Toby Greany

In this podcast, Toby Greany, Professor of Leadership and Innovation at the UCL Institute of Education in London, highlights some of the recent developments in the English government’s embrace of “academies” and “academy chains” (akin to charter schools and charter management organizations in the US). In the process, Greany discusses some of the challenges to developing what David Hargreaves has called a “self-improving” school system. In a series of papers, Hargreaves argues that in a system like England’s where schools have a high degree of autonomy and where the number of academies and chains are increasing, schools need to work in deep partnership with one another if all schools are to be successful.

In the podcast, Greany begins by briefly describing the roots of school autonomy in England in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the launch of the “academy movement.” While the previous Labour government had initiated the academies as a relatively small-scale approach to address chronic underperformance in deprived city schools, the Conservative-led Coaliton government rocket-boosted the movement with the passage of the Academies Act in 2010. The Academies Act allowed any school that was identified as Good or Outstanding by the English school inspectors (Ofsted) to convert to an academy. As an academy, rather than getting funding from the local authorities, funding comes direct from the national government. Further, rather than being subject to local oversight, academies have additional “freedoms” or “autonomies”: these include the freedom to develop their own curriculum and the freedom to hire teachers who have not gone through England’s process for teacher certification (which has also been substantially revised in recent years). While more successful schools can choose to convert to academy status, schools deemed underperforming are forced to become sponsored academies, effectively meaning that they are taken over and run by an academy chain (technically called a Multi-Academy Trust, MAT). These academy chains can be run by philanthropists, universities or any other credible organization, but the most common sponsors now tend to be other successful schools. In such a favorable environment, some academy chains in England have grown considerably in only a matter of two or three years, when networks in the US have taken ten to fifteen years to reach the same size. While there have been some early positive reports, numerous questions remain about the effectiveness of the academy chains.

In describing more recent developments, Greany builds on a set of blogs that he wrote last year in which he outlined several of the challenges to developing a self-improving system and laid out two possible scenarios for the future. One scenario is unbridled competition in which every school is essentially out for itself (Greany punctuates the scenario by likening it to the “post-apocalyptic” scenes in Mortal Engines, a series of books from Philip Reeve, in which London is the first city to move itself onto wheels so that it can devour other cities). Greany describes the second scenario as looking more like the Tour de France in which there is competition between networks of schools just as there is between teams of cyclists, but there is also collaboration within each network.

Drawing on his latest research as well as a report to the select committee of Parliament that was looking into the growth and effectiveness of the academies, Greany describes some hybrid developments where there may be both competition and collaboration between schools and networks simultaneously. Looking towards the future, Greany highlights that much more work needs to be done to figure out what a good network or chain of academies looks like and that important questions about the democratic legitimacy of the academy approach still needs to be addressed. As he concludes, “ultimately, how parents feel about this system seems to be a question we’re not thinking enough about.”

Podcast with Toby Greany: Complete Toby Greany Interview

On the beginnings of autonomy and academies in England:

“The story in England goes back to 1988 and the Education Reform Act that year which effectively gave schools much greater decision-making rights…”


On the self-improving school system and the challenges to it:

“If you have a system of 21,000 autonomous schools can they – individually – all aspire to be and do they all have the capacity to be Outstanding and great schools in their own right?…”  



On recent developments: 

“I think what we’re seeing is differential development…” 


On academy chains:

“There have been some interesting developments at the policy level which I think have helped mitigate some of the worst excesses of things that were happening in the two or three years after the 2010 election…” 


Two scenarios:

“Municipal darwinism” or the “Tour de France”—and how they are playing out today


One “potentially interesting” example of collaboration across networks in one community:

“We’ll do it in a way that tries to exemplify moral purpose and actually get the best outcomes particularly for the most disadvantaged children…”


Looking toward the future:


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